Western Sahara celebrates Independence Day 28 February 2023
By Joy Osiagwu
Western Sahara is a sparsely populated desert region on the northwest coast and in the Maghreb area of North and West Africa. The country was a previous colony of Spain, annexed by Morocco in 1975. The self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) control 20% of the territory, while Morocco controls the rest 80%. It has a population of over 500,00, and about 40% reside in Laayoune, the capital, and the largest city in Western Sahara. The land has a total area of 266,000 km and a total coastline of 1 110km. Western Sahara is the 29th smallest country in Africa and ranked 77th globally. The official language of the area is Arabic.
The flag of the Polisario is used in the Polisario-controlled area, while that of Morocco is used in the rest of the space occupied by Morocco.
On the United Nations record, Western Sahara is listed as a non-decolonized territory, with Spain as the de jure administering state.
Spanish interest in the region dates to the 1700s when it developed a passion in commercial fishing. However, after the 1884 agreement among the European colonial powers at the Berlin Conference on the partition of the sphere of influence on the African continent, Spain took control and established a Spanish colony.
The Moroccans and the Sahrawi had a protracted 16- year dispute which eventually ended with the United Nations truce brokered in 1991 with a promise of a referendum on Independence which is still in the works.
Morocco controls the western portion, while the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic declared by the Polisario Front in 1976 is acknowledged by many administrations worldwide.
The Polisario Front won formal recognition from 46 states. However, Morocco won support from several African nations, principally the Muslim world and Arab League.
Western Sahara is a full member of the African Union.
History records that on February 27, 1976, the Polisario Front declared the Independence of Western Sahara. But the date is recognized by those who favor the Polisario Front’s declaration.
The region is known for its phosphate reserves and the rich fishing grounds off its coast. Untapped offshore oil is also said to be a significant deposit in the area.
The United Nations acknowledged Moroccan sovereignty over some areas of Western Sahara in 2020. The United States also, in the same year, recognized Moroccan supremacy over Western Sahara in exchange for Moroccan normalization of bilateral relations with Israel.
Morocco suspended its membership of the OAU in 1984 due to the recognition of the SADR as a full member of the Union with the same status as Morocco by the organization. But Morocco was readmitted to the African Union on January 30, 2017, with the hope of resolving the protracted conflict by the AU. However, the AU has yet to issue a formal statement about the border separation between Morocco and the SADR.
The United Nations Security Council had called for a revival of the UN-led negotiations on the disputed country in October 2022, expressing deep concern at the breakdown of the 1991 ceasefire appeal between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front as the long dispute has refused to abate.
Joy Osiagwu is a Project Officer with Black History Ottawa. She has over two decades of experience as a broadcast journalist in Nigeria and North America. She holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the University of Cumbria in the United Kingdom, plus a post-graduate diploma in Broadcast Performing Arts from the Columbia Academy, Vancouver, British Columbia.